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An ERC Proof of Concept grant to halt cancer metastasis by targeting lipid metabolism



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  • PalmitoMET is a drug discovery project that targets the enzyme responsible for increased palmitic acid metabolism.
  • The project led by Dr. Salvador Aznar Benitah at IRB Barcelona will receive €150,000 of funding over 18 months.
  • Today, the ERC has announced funding for 66 grantees, 12 of whom are scientists in Spain, to unlock the commercial and societal potential of their research.

Barcelona, 27 July 2023 – Metastasis is the process through which some cancer cells detach from the primary tumour and colonise distant organs, and it is responsible for 90% of cancer-related deaths. While primary tumours rely on glucose metabolism to rapidly grow and divide, the metastatic process is mediated by a switch in the metabolic state of the cell, which turns to fatty acid metabolism. Specifically, previous work by the Stem Cells and Cancer lab, led by ICREA researcher Dr. Salvador Aznar Benitah at IRB Barcelona, has identified palmitic acid metabolism as crucial in the development of metastases.

The researchers are now taking their discovery a step further through PalmitoMET, a project aimed at identifying compounds that prevent the post-translational modifications derived from palmitic acid metabolism. To this end, experiments carried out at the Drug Screening Core Facility at IRB Barcelona will address the potential of enzymes responsible for increased palmitic acid metabolism as antimetastatic therapies. The PalmitoMET project, led by Dr. Aznar Benitah, has been backed with an ERC Proof of Concept grant and will receive €150,000 of funding over 18 months.

“Our goal is to develop novel drugs that block the effect of palmitic acid metabolism once palmitate has entered the metastatic cells, as a potential therapy for metastatic cancer patients,” says Dr. Aznar Benitah.

PalmitoMET is aimed at blocking a possible therapeutic target previously discovered by the member of the research team Dr. Miguel Martín-Pérez during his postdoctoral work at Dr. Salvador Aznar's lab. "This is a challenging project since there is very little information on this target, but also very innovative since the mechanism would be different from other anti-cancer therapies.", states Dr. Martín-Pérez.


Fatty acid metabolism in metastasis

A growing body of evidence highlights the significance of lipids in the development of metastatic tumours. Research has shown that lipids play a pivotal role in facilitating various aspects of metastasis, such as providing the necessary energy and membrane components essential for cancer cell migration and outgrowth. In addition, specific signalling cascades triggered by lipids can prime cancer cells to undergo metastatic transformation.

Consequently, novel therapeutic approaches aimed at targeting pathways activated by lipids could prove a promising and untapped avenue for effectively combating cancer metastasis.


66 Proof of Concept grants given in this call

ERC grantees are eligible to apply for a Proof of Concept (PoC) grant if they have ongoing or recently completed research projects supported by Starting, Consolidator, Advanced, or Synergy grants. Today’s announcement is the second of three in the 2023 call, and the global budget of the PoC call amounts to €30 million.

This year’s chosen projects cover diverse fields and questions, ranging from reducing the carbon footprint of generative AI to developing a new way to mobilise bystanders on social media to reduce online hostility. These grants are aimed at verifying the practical viability of scientific concepts, exploring business opportunities, or preparing patent applications.

This is the eighth Proof of Concept grant awarded to IRB Barcelona to date. Previous grants went to Dr. Toni Gabaldón, Dr. Manuel Serrano, Dr. Modesto Orozco, Dr. Eduard Batlle (2), and Dr. Angel R. Nebreda (2).


About IRB Barcelona

The Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona) pursues a society free of disease. To this end, it conducts multidisciplinary research of excellence to cure cancer and other diseases linked to ageing. It establishes technology transfer agreements with the pharmaceutical industry and major hospitals to bring research results closer to society, and organises a range of science outreach activities to engage the public in an open dialogue. IRB Barcelona is an international centre that hosts 400 researchers and more than 30 nationalities. Recognised as a Severo Ochoa Centre of Excellence since 2011, IRB Barcelona is a CERCA centre and member of the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology (BIST).